There is no shortage of stunning state parks in the North Carolina mountains.
We’ve been fortunate to visit a good number of them, staring up at wondrous waterfalls and conquering skyscraping climbs to mountain summits with panoramic views.
Nevertheless, our trip to the oft-overlooked 4,400-acre Elk Knob State Park last week proved to be another unique experience. It verified that this North Carolina state park deserves some attention, too.
Elk Knob is the third tallest peak in Watauga County, after Grandfather Mountain and Snake Mountain. From the summit, hikers can see into the Iron Mountains of Virginia and Tennessee. On clear days, Pilot Mountain is visible some 80 miles away.
It’s located less than 20 minutes from downtown Boone NC, sending visitors along scenic valley roads that curve and climb through North Carolina’s High Country.
The surrounding mountains seem like megaliths, with marks of modern civilization becoming sparser as you get nearer to the park.
Read on for our in-depth guide to Elk Knob State Park, which delves into its history, geology, and the many recreational opportunities you’ll find there.
Elk Knob State Park Info
ADDRESS: 5564 Meat Camp Road, Todd, NC 28684
PARK HOURS: 7:00 am to 6:00 pm (Nov-Feb), 7:00 am to 8:00 pm (Mar-May, Sept-Oct), 7:00 am to 9:00 pm (June-Aug)
OFFICE HOURS: Monday through Friday 8:00 am to 5:00 pm
ENTRY FEES/PASSES: None
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: https://www.ncparks.gov/elk-knob-state-park/home
RESERVATIONS WEBSITE: Reserve America
DIRECTIONS FROM BOONE: From East King St., take NC-194 N for just over four miles until Meat Camp Road appears on the left. Then turn left and continue north on Meat Camp Road for about 5.5 miles. The entrance and sign for the park will be on the right.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Boone Hiking Trails to Explore
Elk Knob State Park History
Elk Knob has a rich natural history, as well as a slew of cultural history surrounding it. For one, it helps to safeguard the headwaters of the North Fork of the New River, which is one of the oldest rivers in the world.
Counted among a few amphibolite mountains in Southern Appalachia, Elk Knob is composed of a metamorphic rock that provides it with particularly “sweet” soil.
As a result, the mountain has a number of rare plants and wildflowers, such as flame azaleas, large purple fringed orchids, trailing wolfsbane, and Gray’s lily.
The moss-covered northern hardwood forest is composed of trees suited to high elevations, like American beech, yellow birch, sugar maple, and yellow buckeye. All have characteristically gnarly trucks from the intense weather conditions.
While Elk most certainly did graze in the valleys surrounding Elk Knob at one point in time, native herds haven’t been present here since the late 1700s.
From the 1850s to late 1900s, small communities in the north Boone mountains brought goods to Winebarger Grist Mill in the Meat Camp to have them processed.
The wildlands of Elk Knob Park were destined to become a housing development in the late 90s and early 2000s. But nearby landowners teamed up with the Nature Conservancy to purchase the land for conservation purposes.
The park was then deeded to the state of North Carolina in 2003, in order to become one of the many NC state parks near Boone.
Thanks to the efforts of local people and conservation groups, now Elk Knob State Park is safe and sound, and it will remain open for all of us to enjoy.
Things to Do at Elk Knob State Park
Hike the Elk Knob Summit Trail
A first-time visit to this park really has to include the Elk Knob Summit Trail, which is a two-mile journey to the top of the 5,520-foot mountain.
Though it’s rated as moderate to strenuous, this Elk Knob hiking trail is doable for most healthy adventurers. We’ve seen everyone from small children to grandparents there.
With 6,000 volunteer hours and five years of construction, the trail is stunning. Moss-covered boulders line the sides, and gnarly-trunked trees form a magnificent forest.
From the summit, several surrounding mountains—Grandfather, Mount Jefferson, Three Top, the Peak, and even Mount Rodgers in Virginia—are easy to identify.
The southern viewing area includes sightings of two nearby ski slopes.
Hike the Backcountry Trail
For water junkies, the 2-mile Backcountry Trail is an exciting hike away from the Elk Knob summit.
This hiking trail drops down into the valley and includes a couple of stream crossings. Each of these creeks feed into the North Fork of the mighty New River (a popular river for tubing and white water rafting).
For those seeking a camping adventure, the only campgrounds available in Elk Knob State Park are the sites reached via the Backcountry Trail.
The trail is famed for blooming trout lilies in the spring. And because it has a substantial a water source, it’s a good place for spotting Blue Ridge Mountains wildlife.
There are nice views looking up at Elk Knob from the trail, and the valley is hemmed in by two other mountains– The Peak and Snake Mountain (2nd tallest in Watauga Country).
Hike the Beech Tree Trail
The Beech Tree Trail is a good one for visiting families, particularly those with young children.
It’s an easy, one-mile loop that careens through the hardwood forest and comes with free activity guides for kids (and/or adults) to do. The kids can even win small prizes for completing certain hiking tasks!
Though short, this trek also works out well in that there’s a restroom mid-way, as well as a picnic area right alongside it.
Another nice feature along the Beech Tree Trail is colorful artwork from the local community, including paintings, pottery, and wood etchings.
Elk Knob State Park is the only one in North Carolina that allows visitors to enjoy snow sports, including cross-country skiing and snowshoeing (but not snowboarding).
The high-elevation park stays open during the harsh winter to allow visitors a place to enjoy the annual snowfall accumulation that can occur in the NC High Country.
We hiked there in early April, with the temperature around 70º, and there were still a few spots of snow on the northern slopes of the mountain.
The park and its army of enthused volunteers are currently working on creating a new trail, the Maple Run Trail, being designed specifically for cross-country skiing.
Like just about any good state park, Elk Knob is a great place for a picnic.
The park has full-blown picnic facilities, including stationary grills and tables, as well as a pit toilet in close proximity.
That being said, it’s worth noting (for those who want to climb the mountain) that there are two benches at each mountaintop lookout point.
Trust me when I tell you that these come with one heck of a view!
Places to Stay Near Elk Knob State Park
Elk Knob State Park Camping
Camping at Elk Knob State Park is possible, but the campsites are all hike-in sites located in the valley along Backcountry Trail.
There are two group camping areas that can accommodate up to 26 people for organized activities, and there are individual sites for no more than six people (three tents).
All the Elk Knob campsites are primitive, with access to only one drop toilet between the two group camping areas.
All supplies, including water, must be carried in and out of the camping spaces. And there is no entering or exiting the park outside of its operating hours.
Cabins Near Elk Knob State Park
Pet lovers will enjoy the large secluded yard that surrounds the 2-bdrm cozy Cabin Between Boone and Blowing Rock, just 4.6 miles outside the park.
For anyone looking for Mountain Views and a Hot Tub, check out the 2-bdrm Creston Hideaway, just 6.6 miles outside the park.
For additional vacation home rentals, VRBO has a plethora of options in the area.
Boone & Blowing Rock
Boone is only 10 miles south of Elk Knob State Park, and it’s a fantastic base for exploring the surrounding mountains.
There are a lot of things to do “in” Boone: visit state parks, visit ski resorts, play the greens at golf courses, hit the Boone hiking trails, buy fresh Christmas trees, and test the fishing spots in the area.
Home to Appalachian State University, the town of 20,000 people is fully fleeted with Boone attractions, including quality eateries, micro-breweries, museums, and antique shops.
There’s also a range of accommodations available there, from upscale hotels and King Street apartments to tent camping and lakeside log cabins.
Blowing Rock is just another 10 miles further south, and it has its own collection of excellent accommodation options, restaurants, and so on.
READ MORE: The Best Places to Celebrate Christmas in NC
New River State Park
Located about 35 miles away, New River State Park offers a bevy of camping options, including tent sites, paddle-in sites, and RV hookups.
The drive-in sites generally have electricity and the works. Many of the walk-in campgrounds have bathroom facilities and potable water.
The paddle-in and backpacking sites on the river are likely to be primitive, with all supplies carried in and out.
New River State Park also offers hiking, kayaking, fishing and swimming, so it’s a great place for nature lovers to stay, with Elk Knob an easy afternoon, there-and-back trip.
Grayson Highlands State Park (Virginia)
Yurts with outdoor decks, picnic tables, and fire rings can sleep up to four people and have proper beds, though they do lack electricity and running water.
There is also a “bunkhouse,” which is a rustic accommodation that sleeps 14 people. It has limited electricity, a fridge, coffee pot, microwave, heating and air. However, there is no kitchen, private bathroom, or fireplace.
Grayson Highlands State Park has RV and tent campsites as well, including sites specifically for equestrian campers. –by Jonathon Engels; all photos by Emma Gallagher unless otherwise noted; featured photo via Canva.